Criterion Throwback Review: ‘The Great Dictator’

This essay is by our guest writer, Haden Cross.

The first time I watched The Great Dictator, it was four days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, and the only remark on that context in my Letterboxd review was that it had been a “hard day in the real world” that prompted the viewing. Eighteen months later – the timeline of political news long turned into a blur – I assumed that particular hard day was the start of the infamous travel ban. It wasn’t. That was to come three days later. The headlines from January 24th were not good by any means, but since then, the standards of what was considered notably bad had changed; the context in which I saw Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 anti-Nazi masterpiece had altered, and I was curious to see how it had held up in the meantime, and whether it would convey the specific sense of determined hope as it had in my first viewing. In the wake of the last year and a half, the way in which I related to the film shifted dramatically, from revering it as a valiant act of protest to seeing it more as a time capsule to a parallel moment in the past, an emblem of the cyclical nature of history.

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The Great Dictator does not shy away from who and what it is trying to skewer. Adenoid Hynkel’s regime in Tomainia, with its double-cross motif, assembles a visual parallel that is instantly understandable even in just a freeze-frame image. With that established, the film’s primary method of criticism is turning these stand-ins for Hitler and the Third Reich into the height of slapstick. As Hynkel, Chaplin tumbles down stairs, climbs catlike up a curtain, and throws temper tantrums that make him impossible to take seriously as an autocrat. The German language itself devolves into a world salad peppered with nonsensical sounds during the parodies of Hitler’s bombastic speeches. Much in the same way outlets like Saturday Night Live have taken potshots at the Trump administration, The Great Dictator sought to cut down power through humor, offering an image of a powerful international figure that cannot possibly earn one’s respect.

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